The cigarettes were Chesterfields. One of the nurses, who didn't smoke but knew the Herr Oberst-Artz did, had taken them from the body of an American pilot who had survived the crash of his fighter plane but had died en route to Afrika Korps General Hospital #3. The lighter, too, was American, a Zippo, found on the floor of one of the surgical tents. There had been no telling how long it had been there, or to whom it had be-longed, so he kept it.
He lit a Chesterfield, inhaled deeply, and felt with his hand behind him for one of the vertical poles holding up the corner of the tent. When he found it, he leaned against it, then exhaled, examining the glow of the cigarette as he did.
His hands were shaking. He willed them to be still.
It had been time to take a break, to leave the operating theater and step outside into the welcome cold of the night. And to light up a cigarette. And get a cup of coffee, if he could find one.
Though patients were still awaiting his attention, he had learned that he could push himself only so far. After so many hours at the table, his eyes did not see well, his fingers lost their skill, and his judgment was clouded by fatigue.
What he desperately wanted was a drink. But that would have to wait until later, much later, until there were no more wounded requiring his services. He would probably have to wait until the early morning for that. Then he would take several deep pulls from the neck of his bottle of brandy before falling into bed.
He took two more puffs on the Chesterfield, exhaled, and pushed himself away from the tent pole.
I will go to the mess and see if there is coffee. I will do nothing for the next ten minutes except smoke my cigarette and drink my coffee and take a piss.
His route took him past three tents on the perimeter of the hospital area. A medical team - a physician, a nurse, and stretcher bearers - stood outside the three tents as the ambulances and trucks brought the wounded to the hospital.
The physician categorized each incoming patient: Those who would most likely die if they did not go under the knife immediately, he ordered to be carried into the first tent, where a team of nurses would prepare them for surgery. As soon as a table was free, they underwent the knife. Those who had a reasonable chance of survival, but could wait a bit for surgery, were given morphine and moved into the second tent. As soon as the really critical patients had received attention, their turn in an operating theater would come. Those who stood little chance of survival were moved into the third tent and given morphine. When everyone in Tent A and Tent B had received treatment, an attempt would be made to save those in Tent C.
Oberst-Artz von und zu Mittlingen violated his own rule about never going into Tent C. The sight of dead men, and men in the last - too often agonized - moments of their lives, upset him. He knew it was better to be calm and emotionless when he was at the table.
There were six men on stretchers in Tent C.
The first two were dead. One looked asleep. The second's face was frozen with his last agony.
Von und zu Mittlingen covered their faces with blankets and went to the last man on that side of the tent.
He was surprised that he was still alive.
His entire head was wrapped in blood-soaked bandages. That implied, at the least, serious trauma to his eyes and probably to his brain. Both of his hands were similarly bandaged, suggesting to von und zu Mittlingen that he would probably lose the use of both hands, and might actually lose the hands themselves.
Another heavily blood-soaked bandage was on his upper right leg, and his torso was also bandaged; but the amount of blood on these last suggested to von und zu Mittlingen that the wounds on his torso were not as serious as the others, though internal bleeding of vital organs was of course possible.
Excerpted from Secret Honor, by W. E. B. Griffin. © January 10, 2000 , W. E. B. Griffin used by permission of the publisher. No part of this book can be reproduced without written permission from the publisher
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